In Cinemas Dark and Slow in Digital India Lalitha Gopalan brings to life the complexities of contemporary independent feature production in India. She works to counter the dominance of Bollywood in Cinema Studies scholarship by sharing generously the fruits of her extensive research, which was undertaken alongside work on another forthcoming book, Archive to Gallery: Experimental Film and Video Practices in India. Her book detours widely across Hindi, Tamil, Kannada, Bengali, Malayalam language cinemas, converging on a variety of nodal cities, from Kolkata to Chennai to Mumbai, along the way. The expansive picture that emerges is enriched by her pursuit of an archeology of digital works foraged from flash drives, tapes and multiple streaming platforms as well as her programming prowess as a curator-at-large for 3rd I South Asia Film Festival. It is also illuminated enormously by her many conversations with creatives, curators and educators responding to a transforming mediascape across a wide variety of different settings. Recounting the many gems that emerged from her ongoing dialogue with industry stakeholders, Gopalan shares a variety of insider insights into the complexities of the ever-changing situation of digital and independent filmmaking in India.
Gopalan does all this without neglecting her commitment to, indeed passion for, what she calls slow reading. Throughout the book, there is a focus on how “engagement with the affordances of the digital” (p. 98) manifests in cinematic storytelling and aesthetics. Each chapter attends closely to films by three different filmmakers/collectives, triangulated to animate a wide range of themes and histories. It quickly becomes clear that Gopalan’s commitment to slow reading constitutes an especially important strategy for animating digital independent feature production in India because so many of these films remain hard to find as a result of their chequered distribution and exhibition histories.
I had the pleasure of reviewing Gopalan’s book, Cinema of Interruptions for Senses of Cinema in 2003 and later her book on Mani Ratnam’s Bombay.1 What I most enjoyed about these works was precisely this sustained ability to weave together extensive research into a variety of production, distribution, exhibition and reception histories while at the same time being driven by a critical exuberance grounded in the pleasure of allowing the films themselves to lead the way.
The intricacies of these engagements in Cinemas Dark and Slow can only be gestured towards here as I attempt to outline briefly some of the territory covered in each of the chapters.
In the opening chapter, Gopalan begins her account of the complexities associated with the transition to digital filmmaking in India with a focus on cinematography and cinematographers. This leads to a discussion of the evolving approaches to curriculum and pedagogy at the FTII (Film and Television Institute of India) and she continues to return to the significance of this film school across the book. Issues of archiving are also introduced as a major concern in the opening chapter and it becomes clear that state censorship has played a part in undermining access to, and preservation of, many works of interest to Gopalan, with the Board of Censors making repeated appearances throughout the book. Her attention to celebrations for the centenary of cinema in India in 2013 introduces readers to the significance, too, of festivals and film societies for her scholarship. Gopalan points to these changing dispositifs at multiple junctures throughout the book, offering us insights into various constellations of celluloid, electronic, digital and analogue video regimes. The concept of intermediality quickly becomes salient and inquiries into other arts and representational regimes remain a sustained focus throughout the rest of the book. Engagement with a variety of established concepts associated with Cinema Studies – including cinephilia, genre, auteurism and new waves – also help to organise many of the subsequent chapters.
In Chapter 2, “Minding the Gap”, Gopalan traces confluences between film, television and video aesthetics alongside archiving, censorship and festival practices. She embarks firstly on an investigation into the sequencing of recycled footage and animation in Mangal Pandey: The Rising (Kehtan Meta, 2005). Her efforts to trace the origins of the footage highlight how anticolonial politics impacted on recording, archiving and cataloging practices during the emergence of the newly independent nation-state in the 1940s. She moves on to Urf Professor (Pankaj Advani, 2001), which, after a premier at the Digital Talkies Film Festival in 2001, was embargoed by the Board of Censors, a low-definition version subsequently circulating via a variety of ephemeral backup technologies and platforms. Urf Professor is linked with Advani’s commissioning of short films for satellite television station Channel V, which launched many careers associated with the independent industry, highlighting the connections between emerging manifestations of digital cinema and intermedial expression. This is juxtaposed with the fate of Divya Drishti (The Divine Vision, Sidharth Srinivasan 2001), which was also banned by the Board of Censors for its profanity. Gopalan situates Divya Drishti – currently only available as a compressed video file on request from the director – as a pioneering example of emerging approaches to the mise-en-scène of peri-urban spaces in India under digital capitalism.
Gopalan draws on the concept of slow cinema in Chapter 3, focusing on films that offer up critiques of labour and global capitalism by measuring and distending time. Reminding us that the duration of the long take has been extended significantly by the advent of digital cinema, she argues that the static long takes and tableaux vivant compositions of Court (Chaitanya Tamhane 2014) illustrate what she calls a “cinema of waiting” (p. 146), working to express the slowness of the judicial system in the lower courts in Mumbai as endured, most especially, by the marginalised. Reflecting on the FTII’s pedagogy and its associations with the Indian New Wave, art cinema and auteurism, Gopalan turns to Gurvinder Singh’s treatment of duration, rain and fog in his trilogy dealing with the events of 1984 in Punjab: Anhe Ghore da Dhan (Alms for a Blind Horse, 2011), Chauthi Koot (The Fourth Direction, 2015) and Khanaur (Bitter Chestnut, 2019). Rain, too, guides Gopalan’s engagement with Kaul – A Calling (Aadish Keluskar, 2016).
A quest to detect what Gopalan describes as “noir accents in Indian cinema” (p. 176) drives Chapter 4, (“Bombay Noir”), with a focus on lighting, composition and mise-en-scene. Engagement with darkness in this chapter includes the shadowy noir lighting associated with Parinda (Vidhu Vinod Chopra 1989) and Raakh (Ashes to Ashes, Aditya Bhattacharya, 1989) – later revisited as Raakh (Redux, 2011) – as distinguished from the characteristic flat lighting that helps to glamorise Bollywood stars. These gangster films are also characterised as city films as Gopalan traces different epochs and histories of Bombay’s buildings, streets and industries across multiple case studies. Embargoed works from the Media Classic collective set in the slums, for example, are juxtaposed with Company (Ramgopal Varma 2002), where narrative space is reorganised through an emphasis on technologies of recording and watching and the use of the fish-eye lens mimicking surveillance cameras. Gopalan’s cinephilic search for noir becomes aligned with intertextual referencing in these films, ultimately resonating with the counterfeiting logic of Johnny Gaddaar (Johnny the Traitor, Sriram Raghavan, 2007).
Cinephilia and intertermediality are also identified as driving forces in the Tamil New Wave, discussed in Chapter 5, further animating the pleasures of slow reading for Gopalan. Engaging with the notion of database narrative, she explores how the labyrinthine Subramaniapuram (Mahalingam Sasikumar, 2008) incorporates quotations from other films by using television screens, movie posters and movie outings. In the elusive Araanya Kaandam (Thiagarajan Kumararaja, 2010), Gopalan detects the insertion of a range of songs from Hindi and Tamil cinema across the soundtrack as well as narrative and aesthetic strategies associated with gaming. The chapter concludes with an account of the river Kaveri in the minimalist Veli (The Open, 1995/2016), a collaboration between Sashikanth Ananthachari and Kailasam.
Dimitris Eleftheoriotis’ book Cinematic Journeys: Film and Movement (2010) is offered as a jumping-off point for Chapter 6, Road Movies, which traverses the Bengali-language Kahini (Fiction, Malay Bhattacharya 1997), Kannada-language Gaali Beeja (Wind Seed, Babu Easwar Prasad 2015), and Malayalam-language Sexy Durga (Sanal Kumar Sasidharan, 2017). Gopalan stretches the genre, focussing on what she describes as the “reconfiguration of various intensities of movement.” (p. 262) With Kahini, she charts the fragmentary cues and red herrings of a disorientating crime story that bends and folds space and time, producing a narrative structure akin to branching hyperlinks. Before veering off the main road, the journey of the road engineer in Gaali Beeja, in contrast, is punctuated most significantly for Gopalan by stopovers at roadside motels where Wim Wenders’ Alice in den Städten (Alice in the Cities, 1974), its protagonist watching another film at another roadside motel, is repeatedly trotted out from a selection of gifted DVDs. Gopalan shows us how Sexy Durga offers up yet another kind of spatio-temporal organisation of travel with the harrowing trip of an eloping couple whose foray into hitchhiking means they never reach their destination.
Chapter 7 homes in on three surviving films by Amitabh Chakraborty: Kaal Abhirati (Time Addiction, 1989), Bishar Blues (2006), and Cosmic Sex (2012) while also contextualising his neglected and lost works. Chakraborty’s graduation as an editor from FTII in 1985 and his arrival in Kolkata in 1987 are set against the picture that Gopalan paints of Kolkata film culture during the 1980s. She charts the initially lukewarm reception of Time Addiction in light of its challenge to dominant art house tastes as well as its subsequent retrieval and canonisation during its afterlife in the 1990s and early 2000s as a “cult object” with “contraband attachment” for cinephiles. This is set in contrast with the popular reception of the multi award-winning Bishar Blues – Charkraborty’s sole surviving documentary – about the life and philosophy of the Fakir, mystic minstrels of Bengal. Its successor, Cosmic Sex, is likewise embedded in the local Tantric and Sufi practices of the Bengal region, Gopalan shows, but moves from non-fiction practices affiliated with the notebook film to take a cyclic approach to dramatisation.
The book’s final chapter begins with the directive – “Time Out!” – issued by a burgeoning Women in Cinema Collective (WCC) in March 2017 in response to systemic and horrific discrimination, harassment and abuse in the Malayalam film industry. Gopalan then turns to trace the history of the Indian Women Cinematographer’s Collective (IWCC), which was initiated by Fowzia Fathima in 2015 and made possible by a growing network of female graduates of the FTII. The focus on cinematography in this final chapter echoes the opening chapter where Fathima featured as part of Gopalan’s account of cinematographers coming to grips with a range of digital transitions. Goplan also points briefly to Human Trail Pictures, another collective associated with graduates from the FTII which, like the Ektara Film Collective, produces low-budget digital films and circulates them online. Collectives, discussed throughout the book, become emblematic for Gopalan of the importance of tending to the complexities of independent production operating beyond the hubs of mainstream industries.
The potency of this book’s contribution comes from the way that it weaves together technological, industrial and philosophical concerns with a keen focus on the specificities of the historical and cultural contexts of film production in India. There is no doubt that readers will benefit from the persistent labours of this self-confessed cinephile and her thick network of connections across the independent filmmaking landscape in India. Digging into a range of sometimes ephemeral, even obsolescent, practices and formats, Gopalan deftly illustrates how the digital is historical by offering histories of a variety of evolving, sometimes transitory, milieu, staging a multifaceted dialogue between digital film cultures and moving image poetics. By bringing us into the intricacies of the situations that shape the films under discussion, she goes a long way towards tearing open the gaps she identifies in cinema studies scholarship, offering those of us who aren’t embedded in these milieus a way in.
Lalitha Gopalan, Cinemas Dark and Slow in Digital India (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020)
- See Megan Carrigy, “Cinema of Interruptions: Action Genres in Contemporary Indian Cinema by Lalitha Gopalan”, Senses of Cinema no. 28 (October 2003), and Megan Carrigy, “Bombay by Lalitha Gopalan”, Senses of Cinema no. 42 (February 2007) ↩